Washington's Indonesian Bully
by Allan Nairn
www.thenation.com/, March 22,
According to senior Indonesian officials and police and details
from government files, the US-backed Indonesian armed forces (TNI),
now due for fresh American aid, assassinated a series of civilian
activists during 2009. The killings were part of a secret government
program, authorized from Jakarta, and were coordinated in part
by an active-duty, US-trained general in the special forces unit
called Kopassus who has just acknowledged on the record that his
TNI men had a role in the killings.
The news comes as President Barack Obama
is reportedly due to announce that he is reversing longstanding
US policy--imposed by Congress in response to grassroots pressure--of
restricting categories of US assistance to TNI, a force that,
during its years of US training, has killed hundreds of thousands
The revelation could prove problematic
for Obama, since his rationale for restoring the aid has been
the claim that TNI no longer murders civilians. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton told Congress that the issue is whether there
is a "resumption" of atrocities, but in fact they have
not stopped. TNI still practices political murder.
A senior Indonesian official who meets
frequently with top commanders and with the president of Indonesia
says that the assassinations were authorized by "higher-ups
in Jakarta." He provided detailed accounts of certain aspects
of the program, including the names of victims, the methods and
the names of some perpetrators. The details cited in this piece
were verified by other officials, including senior members of
POLRI, the Indonesian national police. Some were also verified
by the Kopassus general who helped run the killings. The senior
official spoke because he said he disagreed with the assassinations.
He declined to be quoted by name out of fear for his position
and personal safety.
Verified details that are known so far
concern a series of assassinations and bombings in Aceh--on the
western tip of the island of Sumatra--where local elections were
being contested by the historically pro-independence Partai Aceh
(PA), a descendant of the old pro-independence GAM (Free Aceh)
At least eight PA activists were assassinated
in the run-up to the April elections. The killings were, according
to the officials with knowledge of the program, an attempt to
disorient PA supporters and pressure the party to not discuss
independence--an act regarded as proscribed speech, not just in
Aceh but across Indonesia under edicts from the country's president,
General Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
One of the PA activists, Tumijan, age
35, a palm oil worker from Nagan Raya, was abducted and found
two days later in a sewage ditch. His throat was slit, his body
mutilated and bound with electrical wire. His corpse appeared
near an army outpost. Some of his family blamed the security forces,
and, as has happened frequently in such cases, started receiving
anonymous death threats.
Another PA activist, Dedi Novandi, age
33, known as Abu Karim, was sitting in his car outside his house
with the driver's side window cracked open when a plainclothes
man strolled up with a pistol and put two bullets in his head.
A POLRI official with detailed knowledge of the crime called it
a professional killing, employing lookouts and advance surveillance
of the movements of Abu Karim.
As it happened, hours earlier Karim had
sat down with a member of a World Bank-sponsored delegation and
expressed his worry about the pre-election killings of PA people
as well as a series of arson and grenade attacks on PA offices.
Soon after, the BBC came to the scene
of the Abu Karim murder. Its correspondent, Lucy Williamson, quoted
one of the neighbors as saying that she "thinks it strange
the police have not found the people who killed [Abu Karim]. 'Maybe
it's because there were no witnesses,' she said. 'And I think
it's weird that there were no witnesses but what can I say? Everyone
said they didn't see anything.' "
"Inside the house," Williamson
continued, "Abu Karim's wife, Cut Dede, watches nervously
over her 4-year-old son. Like many people here she is in no doubt
this was a political killing."
In fact, according to the senior official
and the others who confirmed him, the Tumijan and Abu Karim murders
were part of the TNI assassination program coordinated on the
provincial level at that time by General Sunarko, the PANGDAM
Aceh (chief of TNI forces in the region).
Sunarko had recently been sent to Aceh
by the president, General Susilo, after having been the nationwide
commander of Kopassus, the TNI Special Forces. Prior to that,
General Sunarko had been the chief of staff of Kostrad, the TNI
army's huge Strategic Reserve Command, which operates across the
archipelago and is headquartered in Jakarta near the presidential
Sunarko had been elevated to these key
posts after overseeing militias in occupied Timor. He was a Kopassus
intelligence chief there during the 1999 TNI terror, an operation
that included mass arson and assassinations and was launched while
the East Timorese were preparing to vote for independence.
The 2009 PA killings occurred across Aceh.
The Abu Karim murder, in Bireuen, was said by the officials to
have been managed for General Sunarko by Lieutenant Colonel R.
Suharto, the local TNI army commander, using troops aided by civilians
from the old military-sponsored FORKAB and PETA militias.
Lieutenant Colonel Suharto has long worked
with the TNI's BAIS intelligence unit, which played an integral
role in these assassinations and others nationwide, and is famous
for its killings and torture in formerly occupied Timor and, currently,
in de facto occupied Papua.
When I asked knowledgeable POLRI officials
about Lieutenant Colonel Suharto and the killing of Abu Karim,
they became as nervous as the neighbors cited in the BBC report.
They reluctantly discussed his role, but
privately. We then went on the record and I asked whether Lieutenant
Colonel Suharto had in fact run the Abu Karim and other assassinations,
and further asked whether he was among those still running "black
operations." The key POLRI official did not deny anything
but instead said "I cannot comment on that," and then
insisted that his name not be attached to even that remark.
On Friday, around 10:30 pm Western Indonesia
Time, I called Lieutenant Colonel Suharto's cell phone. There
was no answer, so I sent a text message and he replied by text,
asking who it was. I told him and we began a text message exchange
that lasted until after midnight. In the midst of the texts I
tried to call him five times, but each time he merely let the
By text, Lieutenant Colonel Suharto asked
me where I was, and then, how I'd gotten his number. He asked
me why I wanted to speak to him. I replied, to discuss the PA
assassinations, including that of Abu Karim. Suharto wrote back
that that was a police matter. I asked him if TNI did the killings.
Suharto replied no, and then I asked by text, "So, does that
mean you know who the killers are?" He said no to that too,
so then I asked him, "So how can you know TNI wasn't involved?"
At that point, Lieutenant Colonel Suharto
disconnected his cell phone. I tried to call but got a phone company
recording. I then sent a text message asking whether he, Lieutenant
Colonel Suharto, was "involved in the murder of Abu Karim,
or the murders of other PA activists." Phone-company signaling
indicates that that message was delivered, but as of now, Suharto
has not replied.
Militia members have said that Suharto's
men also burned and threw grenades at the PA offices. But all
this was apparently only one small part of the operation. In Nagan
Raya, in another part of Aceh, the snatching and assassination
of Tumijan was carried out by another TNI team, also working under
General Sunarko. This is according to numerous officials, including
some from POLRI--and, in part, according to General Sunarko himself.
In the Tumijan murder, the evidence includes
not just statements by inside officials but also a complex series
of actions, including the unpublicized detention of some of the
low-level hit men who were subordinates of General Sunarko.
The senior Indonesian official who first
spoke of the assassination program said that Tumijan had been
taken and finished off by a group of young Kopassus and other
soldiers who, as in the Abu Karim case, also used civilians from
TNI's old militias. He gave the names of some of them, the soldiers
Captain Wahyu and Oktavianus, and the civilian TNI-run militia
followers Muhyari, Supardi, Kadir, Herwan, M. Yasin, Suprayogi,
Tahmid and Suparno.
He then made the remarkable claim that
though no outsider yet knew it, these lower-ranking killers of
Tumijan had been secretly detained and held for many months as
part of a sensitive political deal involving POLRI, TNI and officials
who had unexpectedly gotten wind of certain aspects of the still-secret
TNI assassination program.
POLRI, he, said, agreed to take the militiamen,
the military police handled two of the soldiers, and the officials
who had stumbled upon the operation agreed to not discuss it publicly,
as did POLRI, which never announced the detentions and never attempted
to charge the men. Most important, the detentions were confined
to street operatives in just one of the murders. The more senior
officers were left untouched to continue the operation.
POLRI officials I spoke to confirmed the
senior official's account. But they did so with evident reluctance,
even fear. They made it clear that they had no intention of going
after the "higher-ups in Jakarta," or General Sunarko--or
even Lieutenant Colonel Suharto, who is a mere local commander.
POLRI also kills and tortures civilians,
and mounts joint task forces with TNI, but they are fierce institutional
rivals, wrestling for money, power and extortion turf, and though
POLRI has recently ascended somewhat, TNI still has more guns
and cash, and it lacks POLRI's political burden of having to claim
that it's enforcing the laws against murder.
On Thursday, I reached the Aceh POLRI
commander, Police General Aditya, on his cell phone, and though
he first said he would only speak privately, face to face, and
then tried to end the conversation, he did confirm--for the first
time publicly--that the lower-level hit men in the Tumijan assassination
had indeed been detained. When I asked him if it was true that
TNI General Sunarko had in fact supervised assassinations of activists,
Police General Aditya replied, "It is not in my capacity
to disclose that information," and abruptly hung up the phone.
On Friday, I reached General Sunarko on
his cell phone and asked him about the assassinations, and Sunarko
acknowledged that his TNI men had a role in the killings. But
he said that assassinations by TNI officers and men should not
necessarily be classified as being official acts of TNI "as
an institution." General Sunarko was remarkably calm. Though
it was not yet public, he knew about the detention of his subordinates
for the Tumijan murder (General Sunarko raised the matter before
I mentioned it), but the general indicated that he was not worried
about any follow-up action by POLRI or other authorities.
General Sunarko seemed familiar with the
Tumijan killing, and said that Captain Wahyu and Oktavianus, two
of those detained, had worked for his, Sunarko's, then-headquarters
in Aceh, the Iskandar Muda regional KODAM (the command covering
all of Aceh). When I asked specifically if he, General Sunarko,
was involved in the assassinations, he responded lightheartedly,
"That would be the work of a crazy person," he said,
"and I am not yet crazy."
When I asked General Sunarko about his
subordinate, Lieutenant Colonel Suharto, he said that he knew
him well, but when I asked him if Suharto had run the killing
of Abu Karim, General Sunarko replied, "I don't know,"
but then added, "If that had happened, I'd know."
General Sunarko also said, before I broached
the matter of the assassinations, that he was an enthusiastic
supporter of President Obama's plan to boost aid to Kopassus and
to TNI generally. Sunarko said that the United States and TNI
had had a long, close partnership that had "raised the capacity
of TNI," and that Obama's restoration of aid would make for
"a still more intimate [akrab] collaboration."
The general said that he was himself was
a longtime colleague and admirer of US forces, having received
US training at various sites in Indonesia "many times"
since the 1980s. Using the English-language names of some of the
courses and of the US units that gave them, he said that US Army
instructors in mobile training teams from the Pentagon's Pacific
Command (in Hawaii) had trained him in jungle warfare and logistics
as well as in other subjects that he did not name. He said his
US training included special exercises in 1994 and 1998, and that
his fellow TNI trainees included other Kopassus and Kostrad men.
General Sunarko said his most recent US training was in 2006,
when he was the chief of staff of Kostrad, soon to become the
The general also suggested that the training
was good for the Americans too, since it enabled TNI and the US
military to "learn lessons from each other," and best
situated the US to "get what it needs" from TNI.
President Obama had been due to leave
for Indonesia today, but the visit has been postponed. Still on
the table is a big aid package for TNI, negotiated over recent
months, the political centerpiece of which is an apparent renewal
of open aid for Kopassus.
Though most every unit of TNI (and POLRI)
has been implicated in mass atrocities, those of Kopassus are
the most notorious, and, as its former commander, the US-trained
General Prabowo, once told me, it has historically been the unit
most closely identified with Washington. It was thus especially
galling to TNI when US activists, myself included, were able to
successfully press Congress to interrupt US aid to Kopassus in
Obama's planned renewal of aid to Kopassus
is now awaited by TNI as sweet vindication, and by many of the
survivors of TNI terror as America's green light for more.
But as with most of the other atrocities
by TNI, the assassination program reported in this piece involves
multiple TNI components beyond Kopassus: Kopassus, but also BAIS
intelligence and the mainline regional and local commands KODAM,
KOREM and KODIM, all of them, most importantly, reporting ultimately
to the national TNI commanders and other "higher-ups in Jakarta."
And regardless of whether the US restores
the aid for Kopassus, TNI as a whole already has the green light.
There are now 2,800 TNI men reportedly being trained in the United
States (this according to Indonesia's defense minister; see Olivia
Rondonuwu and Ed Davies, "Interview--Indonesia Sees U.S.
Lifting Military Training Ban," Reuters, March 4), and Obama's
Pentagon is pushing weapons and equipment sales and US loans that
would further empower TNI overall.
That being said, Kopassus does indeed
have a special swagger and symbolic potency. During the recent
Obama-TNI aid negotiations in anticipation of his trip, the Kopassus
commanding general came to Washington and was welcomed by the
Obama team. Back in Indonesia, also during the talks, a Kopassus
man felt confident enough to attempt to board a commercial flight
out of Aceh while carrying a pistol fitted with a silencer--a
classic assassination weapon. This was of interest to the Indonesian
official who described the incident, because one victim in Aceh
had apparently been executed with a silenced pistol, at night
(the victim's roommate didn't awaken).
An airport security man affiliated with
the air force took the Kopassus man's pistol away, but later,
a Kopassus delegation arrived and made him give it back.
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